Sifting and Winnowing

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
UW-Madison Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin’s Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, pitched as a way to improve both the quality and affordability of undergraduate education, is a deceptively appealing policy. On its face, it appears to be an efficient way to increase UW’s resources while decreasing inequities in access. It does this by taking a substantial step towards a “high-tuition/high aid” model that asks middle and upper-income students and families to pay more of the University’s costs.

In practice, this policy sacrifices equity for excellence, and puts one of the nation’s premier public flagship campuses in jeopardy. Make no mistake: it passes the burden of funding public higher education onto the shoulders of working families and students—in the midst of a financial crisis. While purporting to “hold harmless” lower-income students with increases in financial aid, it employs a poorly justified income cutoff that will make successful implementation near impossible. By raising the sticker price in the midst of a recession it is likely to have trickle down effects that effectively steer the low-income students elsewhere, while increasing the resource disparities between Madison and other System campuses. In effect, this initiative will make UW-Madison both more desirable and less accessible.

To demonstrate her sincere commitment to UW’s undergraduates, Chancellor Martin should move quickly to ensure that all consequences of her proposal—intended and unintended—will be carefully measured and considered. Under President Obama’s leadership the nation has moved toward an era of greater transparency, accountability, and data-driven decision-making. Part of Martin’s commitment to undergraduates should be to do the same.